Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Scientist on the Resurrection

The Rev Canon John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge. His latest book is Questions of Truth, with Nicholas Beale. In this article, published in the Times on April 11, 2009, he comments on the Resurrection of Jesus from the standpoint of a scientist.

If being a scientist teaches you anything it is surely that the world is surprising, often behaving in strange ways that we could not have anticipated. Who would have thought in 1899 that something could sometimes behave like a wave (spread out and flappy) and sometimes like a particle (a little bullet)? Yet that is how light has been found to behave, and physicists have come to understand how this seemingly oxymoronic combination is possible.

This sort of experience means that the instinctive question for a scientist to ask is not "Is it reasonable?", as if we knew beforehand the shape that rationality had to take, but rather "What makes you think that might be the case?"

That is a question at once more open and more demanding. It does not try to specify beforehand the form that an acceptable answer has to take, but if you are to persuade me that some unexpected possibility is true, you will have to offer evidence in support of your claim. Science trades in the search for truth attainable through motivated belief.

So does religion. I am entirely happy to approach the search for religious truth in a similar spirit to that in which I look for scientific truth. If the physical world often proves to be surprising, it would scarcely seem strange if the Creator of that world also exceeded our prior expectations. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jesus Christ is that we have all heard of Him. Of course He had an impressive public ministry, saying wise things and doing compassionate deeds. But then it all seemed to collapse and fall apart. He was arrested, deserted by His disillusioned followers, painfully and shamefully executed, suffering a death that any pious 1st-century Jew would have seen as a sign of God's rejection (Deuteronomy says "cursed is anyone hung on a tree").

Two of the gospels tell us that from the gallows he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" That first Good Friday, it must have seemed that that promising ministry had ended in abject failure and that Jesus had proved to be no more than yet another 1st-century messianic pretender. I believe that if the story of Jesus really ended there, we would never have heard of Him. He would just have dropped out of historical remembrance, as grandiose claims and exciting hopes proved to be empty.

Yet we have all heard of Jesus, and He has been a powerfully influential figure for 2,000 years. Something happened to continue his story. All the writers of the New Testament believe that what happened was his Resurrection from the dead the first Easter Day. Can we today believe this strange counterintuitive claim? Looking for the motivations for this belief requires a careful and scrupulous assessment of the evidence. Here I can do no more than sketch the considerations that persuade me to bet my life on accepting the claim. The belief that within history a man should rise from death to lead a life of unending glory would have seemed as strange in the 1st century as it does to us today. Many Jews believed that at the end of history the dead would be raised, and there were stories of people who had emerged from apparent death for a further spell of life before finally dying, but that was resuscitation not absolute resurrection. The claim that Jesus is a living Lord is quite different. The New Testament offers two lines of evidence. One line is the appearance stories, strangely varied, yet with a surprisingly persistent theme, that initially it was hard to recognise the risen Christ. I believe that this is a genuine historical reminiscence, indicating that these are not just a bunch of made-up tales constructed by a variety of early Christians.

Then there are the empty-tomb stories. If these were just concocted, why make women the discoverers when they were regarded as unreliable witnesses in the ancient world? Clearly there is much more that needs to be said, but I hope I have said enough to show that a scientist, open to unexpected beliefs but stringent in demanding adequate motivation for them, can believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, the fundamental pivot on which Christian belief turns.


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